Rough around the edges, but I can see the potential.
Games that are driven by online generally lack two great things: gorgeous visuals and competent gameplay. Most of the time the visuals are dumbed down in order to get the online side of things working smoothly, especially if you’re on a limited console (see Battlefield 1943 for example). You’re having to accommodate a potentially large amount of people, fast-paced action and respawns out the wazoo. All of which can drown out system resources pretty darn quickly.
In terms of gameplay, most online-based games tend to sacrifice a bit of gameplay because they simply cannot over-complicate their audience with details and functions. When you’re trying to build an audience that isn’t used to this sort of stuff, you can’t ask them to do much beyond their gaming abilities. Browser-based games are generally simple in the gameplay department because they want their audience to come back for more. Heck, Battlefield 1943 is very simple in nature, so that people don’t have to think too much — they simply point and shoot.
Well, Gaijin Entertainment has thrown a wrench into both categories. They’ve created a wonderful online experience through their newest title (at least for consoles) on the PlayStation 4 that takes the best of both complaints and tries to deliver the best of both worlds. Of course, it’s not perfect, but it certainly is a step in the right direction.
Gameplay for War Thunder is broken into two very distinct pieces: Airplanes and Tanks.
I’ll be honest, the majority of my review period was spent in a cockpit. I wanted to try an extensive period with the tanks, but the lure of flying really kept me from spending too much time in that area. Before we get into the flying, just know that the tanks portion of the game gives a better chance of success. It gives you that ‘point and shoot’ simplicity that doesn’t leave much room for failure, unless you’re blown to bits because you’re being a complete dumbass. I think there is a lot of fun to be had for anyone who enjoyed games like the Abrams tank series, heck even Tank! Tank! Tank! to an extent, sans the arcade feel. For me, the tank portion of the game wasn’t as interesting as the flying side of War Thunder, but I can certainly respect what Gaijin Entertainment did with the ground war.
The real show, the challenge, if you will, is the airplane side of War Thunder. It’s comparable to the Microsoft Flight Simulator series in terms of level of complication and sensitivity. Granted, you have different types of battle styles to choose from in the game itself (including the tanks), which are broken down like this:
Arcade Battles — The majority of players I flew with and against in the game stuck with arcade battles. Maybe it was because they couldn’t find other options in the game (the menus are confusing and complicated at times), but it was almost always full of players. The wait to get into a game was probably somewhere around 20-30 seconds at most. In the Arcade Battle, your objectives are spread out into several variations. You could be ordered to take out the enemy’s ground forces, planes, bases or just simply play a nice game of capture the flag/airbase. There was a lot going on over a variety of landscapes to make this game type interesting. It seemed to be the favorite of the bunch, and understandably so.
Realistic Battles — It’s just as the name says. You’re put into realistic battle situations. It’s good stuff, especially for the history nuts out there.
Simulator Battles — Yeah, I tried this once. It’s not for the faint of heart. You’re asked to go full Microsoft Simulator with this one and I’m just not smart enough for the task at hand. You basically have full reign with no computer help with the controls. I couldn’t even get the plane to take off the runway during the tutorial section of it, and I promise you that I tried my hardest. For folks who absolutely love flying (maybe in real life), you’re going to adore this portion of the game. You’re going to adore it more when you can use your PC flight controls for the game, and yes the drivers are coming according to Gaijin Entertainment.
The modes aren’t too overly complicated to grasp, but actually participating in them and succeeding can be tough at times, especially with the last mode. The variety is good, though, as it caters to all simulator gamer levels.
Before we get too far into how the flying is in the game, let’s talk about the menus in between games. For the super smart PC gamers out there, this might seem like child’s play when using a mouse and keyboard (which are compatible in this game — Gaijin Entertainment’s rep informed us of this last night). For console gamers, there’s a lot going on here. On the top left you have your user menu, where you can chat, send messages and check how you’re leveling is doing. On the top right, you have the amount of money and whatnot at your disposal. The bottom left contains your vehicles and a way to upgrade/research/improve them. The bottom right contains your different choices for game types, country choice and game servers. It might all seem pretty simple, but there’s a lot going on here.
The biggest issue I encountered with the interface was trying to add a fellow reviewer to my squad. We kept sending invites back and forth, but we could never actually figure out where to accept them. Once I had a notification on the screen that allowed me to accept an invite into his squad, but I was unable to confirm it because I was in my chat window. I closed my chat window, but in doing so I closed my invite and I could never find how to get it back again. Sadly, another invite was sent to me and I didn’t get the invite message again. It was difficult, frustrating and out of all the things that should have been enormously simple to navigate, it was not. I want to have a squad of badasses on my team, but I don’t want to jump through hoops to do so. Gaijin Entertainment has to find a way to make this easier. Possibly in an update? Hmmm.
Getting back to the planes, the controls are a bit of a stickler in the airplane. Flying around in World War I and World War II planes reminded me less of Battlefield 1943 and more of the Microsoft Flight Simulator 2: WWII Pacific Theater. If my memory serves me correctly (it was eons ago — 14 years, I believe). Much like Pacific Theater, War Thunder isn’t a pick up and go sort of game, which is surprising considering its online centrality. You have to worry about flaps, air speed, not pulling too many Gs and other little nuances. Again, it’s very complicated for a game genre that generally tries to ease up on its users, and I have to give them some kudos for that side of the gameplay. It certainly adds some value and requires some skill to get the job done.
Some of the flying missions require you to worry about the plane’s functionality and insist that you do things right. For example, when you’re playing capture the base (which is essentially capture the flag), you have to land at airfields in the middle of battle and maintain a landing position as you capture the base. Again, you must ‘land’ on the airfield to capture it. This requires you to put down your landing gear, open up you flaps and slow down to a landing speed. There aren’t any onscreen indicators telling you to pull up, slow down or any kind of warning to help you out. You must pretty much feel your way through it, and that’s fine. It’s tough at times and sometimes downright frustrating. That comes with a good simulator though.
What’s even more difficult is understanding that each plane doesn’t act the same way. If you’re used to flying a MiG, you’ll find it turns a little loose and acts heavy as it flies through the air. It’s got some balance issues, mainly because it was probably made cheaply, but it’s a solid machine when taking damage. The I-16 plane is certainly lighter, more versatile in combat and can maneuver like nobody’s business. Sadly, it is also fragile and is easily blown out of the sky by the slightest heavy gunfire. If you ever get to the point where you research and unlock a bomber — well, good luck with that one. Got one finally, but it’s a beast to fly. it’s also a beast to fire from and is unforgiving with wrong turns (or with idiots who can’t fly — like myself). Each plane has been crafted to act differently, which makes the game really diverse when it comes to the level of gamer experience.
A positive note to the game is that it has a large amount of upgrades and research that you can do to make your fleet of planes better. By the way, this is where the microtransactions come into play. You can upgrade your planes through research points, silver lion currency and through golden eagle premium currency. You gain all of it through flying missions and succeeding the best possible way you can. You can purchase currency through the PlayStation Store, which doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have an advantage over another player. It just means you can do more, as the skillfully controlling the planes is what makes you a better player. I like that balance and the microtransactions aren’t forced on you. I haven’t hit a wall yet with them, though I can see why they would be valuable.
In the presentation category of War Thunder, you’re going to be surprised — depending on your connection. At home, I am cheap and have a 10mb connection. It usually doesn’t give me issues for online play (see any of my Call of Duty/Battlefield reviews for details), but with War Thunder it was just slightly too slow to get all the pretty pictures at once. Don’t worry, I didn’t experience lag at all during gameplay (thank GOD), just graphics building as the game continually loaded.
The usual visuals you get with the flying portion of War Thunder is a sprawling landscape that has details everywhere. Gorgeous trees, rolling hills, sometimes mountains, and other little details that can make you just want to fly everywhere to see everything — although, that’s a bad idea because you will get killed quickly. If you have a slow connection speed, like me at home, you will find pop-ups on the landscape, rendering textures cropping up and little bits and pieces start appearing during fights. Ultimately, the visuals will load as the game progresses, but not just all at once.
Having said that, all of this changed when I played at work (which is super-duper fast), and everything appeared without any additional processing. I’ve got a 30mb+ connection at work and it just sliced through it all like cheesecake.
Visually, I was especially impressed with how the clouds roll in and slowly move over the mountain sides of some environments. The lighting, shadows and textures (when they’re in place) are pretty darn nice. The scaling of the ground and larger areas is done very well with War Thunder. There’s a lot to love and appreciate with this game visually, and we haven’t even gotten to the planes.
The planes are gorgeous to look at as you’re flying. You’ll find some accurate looking models over both World Wars. From bombers to bi-planes, you’ll find a variety of vehicles waiting for you in this game. Also with those models you’ll also find some fun detailed damage when you get your ass kicked. Bullet holes are represented really well and where you get hit in the game actually affects both your flying ability and how it looks in a third-person view. I thought it was quite cool to see my tail riddled full of bullet marks. Even when I exploded in a fiery ball, I thought that it was well done. There’s a lot to love about the visuals in this game and I’m sure as time goes on Gaijin Entertainment will release a better version of the title, as scary as it sounds. The sun and reflective environments off the plane are nice to look at, though I didn’t get to see if the plane reflected off the water. I was a bit hesitant for that experiment, as it surely would have led to my death.
Anyway, if you’re not cheap, like me, you’ll find War Thunder breathtaking to look at, though it’s still not quite the next great visual push we’re all still waiting for on this generation of consoles. It’s much better than what we’ve seen with flat, lifeless simulators prior to this generation.